Richard Wagner - Lohengrin
Opernhaus Zürich, 2015
Simone Young, Andreas Homoki, Christof Fischesser, Klaus Florian Vogt, Elza van den Heever, Martin Gantner, Petra Lang, Michael Kraus, Bastian Thomas Kohl, Iain Milne, Andri Robertsson, Spencer Lang
Zurich - 4 July 2015
There were many peculiarities with Hans Neuenfels' most recent production of Lohengrin at Bayreuth, setting it in a laboratory where the citizens of Brabant are all rats, but the concept it explored in its society as a laboratory experiment is a relevant one. The Wagnerian ideal of society and the evils within it that must be fought might or might not be entirely out-dated, but they still need to be seen in the context of the times and with a higher view of the human traits they reveal. That is handled in a rather more approachable manner in Andreas Homoki's Zurich production.
The main theme of Lohengrin is of course 'Trust', or 'Belief' or 'Faith'. At the beginning it's principally embodied in Elsa von Brabant, in her belief that her knight in shining armour will rescue her from those accusing her of the murder of her brother, and from the evil ambition of Friedrich von Telramund and Ortrud, who have their own interests at heart more than that of the people of Brabant. Homoki's production includes a screen with two hearts emblazoned with the slogan "Es gibt ein Glück" ("There is a happiness"), the words taken from Elsa's plea to a seemingly repentant Ortrud in Act II, "Lass zu dem Glauben dich bekehren: Es gibt ein Glück, das ohne Reu!" ("Turn then to the belief that there is a happiness without regret!").
Elsa's own faith however is later tested by her protector's demand that she never ask him his name or where he comes from. It's a seemingly odd and arbitrary demand, one that her failure to keep results in dire consequences far beyond what you would expect for such a minor infraction of his rules. The question of Trust however that this represents is about more than trusting the word of your husband. Much as trust is the foundation of a relationship, it is also the foundation of a nation. For Wagner myth is fundamental in cementing the ideals of a nation through a common belief, and that essentially that is really what Lohengrin is about.
What happens when people stop believing in 'the gods', when a nation stops believing in the right and the power of those to govern and rally their people around a common cause? Lohengrin is the first of Wagner's operas to really explore this idea and find a unifying mythology for the German people from the 12th century writings of Wolfram von Eschenbach. The power of myth, trust and belief is there in Der Fliegende Höllander, but in Lohengrin the seeds are sown for that larger tapestry of Wagnerian mythology with references to Parsifal, to Wotan and Freia that would be expanded in the Ring and just about all of the composer's mature works.
The underlying premise of Lohengrin is made clear very early on. The king, Heinrich der Vogler, wants to gather an army to fight the Hungarian rising in the East and is counting on the Duchy of Brabant to join the common cause. What the people of Brabant really need however is someone to rally behind, someone who clearly has God's blessing and can provide the necessary social cohesion. The trial of Elsa von Brabant provides an opportunity to reveal just such an inspirational leader. Lohengrin, although he doesn't reveal his identity, proves to be that man, defeating and exposing the conspiratorial and self-serving ambitions of Friedrich von Telramund.
It's important then, whether it makes sense or not on a modern day level, to establish a sense of a community looking for a Holy cause to rally behind. Like his Der Fliegende Höllander, Andreas Homoki uses a picture ("Es gibt ein Glück") as the embodiment of myth as art (or art as myth). The costume design (Wolfgang Gussmann) is all Bavarian lederhosen and Tyrolean feathered hats, making that decidedly Germanic in nature. Wagner supports it with rousing choruses of nationalistic fervour, but the simple wood panelled stage set that is used throughout the three acts also helps establish a very closed-in community in an almost claustrophobic environment, ready to be manipulated. The use of the stage, the reconfiguration of the tables and chairs to suit the context, and the blocking of the performers and crowds on the stage is superb, moving masses of people around as necessary. Which is, I suppose, essentially what being part of a nation is all about.
If the stage direction provides a strong sense of purpose, the success of the production rested on some outstanding singing performances and, above all, on a most powerful and dynamic musical performance from the Zurich Philharmonic orchestra under Simone Young. Every stirring chorus made its impact, but on the smaller details too Young hit home, emphasising every point that Homoki attempts to bring out in the production, being particularly devastating in the conclusion. In the relatively close confines of the Zurich Opera House, this was all the more effective, the expanded orchestra spilling over into the lower boxes, the detail perhaps not always coming through, but all of its impact definitely there.
Klaus Florian Vogt still has just about the ideal angelic voice for Lohengrin. He was wearing a harness for an injured leg on the night of this performance, but it didn't seem to hinder him in any way. At times, his singing feels a little like he's going through the motions and not entirely involved in the proceedings, but his projection is strong and clear and came over very well. There was fabulous projection also from Christof Fischesser, who stamped his authority on King Heinrich, Elza van den Heever was a fine Elsa and Martin Gantner showed a lot of character as Telramund.
Petra Lang's Ortrud however almost stole the show. The direction here gives her more of an anarchic character that is not entirely unsympathetic. This Ortrud is less of a hissing villain than one who is ideologically inclined towards pulling down the artifices of national brotherhood and the belief that happiness can be found in it for all. It's perhaps not what Wagner intended, but it really opens up the dynamic of the work and Petra Lang ran with it in a performance brimming with passion, vigour and thrilling technique.
Links: Opernhaus Zürich